In view of the many warnings, in the previous studies and elsewhere, to be on guard against deceptive messages and people, it seems prudent to examine the subject.
One extremely important observation that should be kept in mind throughout, is that the vast majority of these warnings and admonitions are addressed in the plural. The counsel of a committed brotherhood is essential to responsible discernment, because an individual, however faithful or insightful, can much more easily be misled than can a mutually seeking, trusting group.
Secondly, it is crucial to note that “deception” represents at least four separate categories of threats. (These references are only a few examples. They are not exhaustive). Most obvious, of course, are the overt schemes of those individuals, natural or supernatural, who actively and deliberately oppose the Kingdom, its King, and its loyal citizens (Eph.4:14, 5:6; I Tim.4:1, II Jn.7). Harder to detect, and therefore perhaps a greater danger, are errors that emerge from within the disciple group itself (II Cor.11:13, II Pet.2:14, I Jn.2:26). Even more dependent upon the discernment of the brotherhood are the errors of self-deception (I Cor.3:18, Eph.4:22, Jas.1:22,26; I Jn.1:8), or “wandering” caused by simple ignorance (Mt.22:29, Tit.3:3, Jas.5:20).
Sorting out the five nouns and nine verbs traditionally translated “deceit, deceive, deception , deceiver” gives some clue to the different ideas they represent, but they do not all fall into neat categories. Sometimes, the reference is primarily to self-deception: phrenapatao, deleazo, apatao, exapatao, paralogizomai, and planao are occasionally – but not always – used this way. But dolos, doliao, doloo, dolios, and katabrabeuo always describe external influences, and are never self-inflicted. Any of these, however, may be sourced either within or outside the disciple group: another reason for careful discernment in any faithful brotherhood.
Only once is any sort of deception said to have its immediate source in an act of God (II Thes.2:11), and that is the result of people’s overt, deliberate rejection of his ways.
The lexicons are helpful, but no more precise in distinguishing among the various words.
Apate / apatao, for example, (n) “trick, fraud, deceit; deception, seduction, wasting time, guile, treachery”, and (v) “to cheat or deceive, to seduce”, appears in Col.2:8 (intellectual), Eph.4:22, II Pet.2:13 (physical / psychological), Mt.13:22 (financial), II Thes.2:10 (judicial), as well as “spiritual” (Heb.3:13) contexts. Its source may be human (Eph.5:6), the serpent, or Satan himself (I Tim.2:14), or oneself (Jas.1:26). Only twice is self-deception the focus: II Pet.2:13 implies that it is deliberate, while Jas.1:26 may simply refer to an error in judgment.
The prefixed form exapatao is merely an intensified form of the verb, and is found in Rom.7:11, 16:18; I Cor.3:18, II Cor.11:3, II Thes.2:3.
Dolos and its related words, doloo, dolios, doliao, on the other hand, are always deliberate, and never self-inflicted. L/S lists for dolos “bait for fish, any cunning contrivance for deception” (this was used of the Trojan horse, as well as the Pharisees and Judas scheming for Jesus’ betrayal – Mt.26:4). Additional classical definitions include “a trick, trap, or stratagem; treachery – often implying an expectation of gain for the perpetrator.” This is the only word of this group that is used more than once in the New Testament. All indicate an active effort to mislead or destroy, whether the scene involves his enemies’ efforts to do away with Jesus (Mt.14:1, 26:4); generally unsavory behavior (Mk.7:22, Rom.1:29); misrepresentation of facts to influence choices (II Cor.2:16, I Thes.2:3, I Pet.2:22 where the traditional translation uses “guile”); hypocritical action and attitudes (Jn.1:47, I Pet.2:1, 3:10; Rv.14:5); or overt opposition to the truth of the gospel (Ac.13:10).
The other words each appear only a single time.
Doloo (L/S – “to disguise, to alter, adulterate, or falsify a substance”) is used in II Cor.4:2 of the distortion of true teaching.
Doliao (v) and dolios (n), L/S – “to deceive” and “treachery” respectively, appear in Rom.3:13 and II Cor.11:13.
Paralogizomai – L/S – “to defraud, to reason falsely, to disguise, to mislead by false reasoning”, (Bauer – “to deceive or delude, defraud, or distort”, and Thayer “to cheat by false reckoning”) appears only twice: Col.2:4 as an external threat, and Jas. 1:22 as self-deception – perhaps both by assuming rational arguments.
Phrenapatao (v) and phrenapates (n), (Bauer – to deceive or mislead oneself or another), each with a single appearance, may likewise be either internal (Gal.6:3) or external (Tit.1:10) in origin.
This is also true of deleazo, traditionally translated once “beguile” (II Pet.2:14), once “allure” (II Pet.2:18), both external, and once “enticed” (Jas.1:14) of one’s own inappropriate behavior. L/S defines this as “to catch with bait, and Bauer treats it in tandem with dolos.
Katabrabeuo, L/S “to deprive of one’s rights, or of a deserved prize”; and Thayer, “to bribe a judge to condemn someone”, appears only in Col.2:18, where Paul is seeking to counteract the influence of philosophical syncretism in the church.
By far the most frequently used of all the terms are planao, plane, planos. This group is also the most diverse in usage. L/S lists for the verb, planao “to lead astray, mislead, or deceive; to cause to wander”, or in the passive voice, “to digress, wander or stray, to be in doubt or at a loss.” Bauer adds “to be mistaken in judgment”. For the noun, plane,L/S has “wandering, roaming, going astray, illusion, deceit, imposture” and Bauer adds “error, delusion, deceit, any false concept”. For the noun planos L/S reads “error, deceit, wandering, or, if a person, a vagabond or impostor.”
This is the only one of the plethora of terms that may also refer to innocent ignorance, where the parable in Mt.18:12,13 refers to a wandering sheep, and Peter uses it metaphorically (I Pet.2:25, and II Pet.2:15) of people who are equally confused. These errors can be consciously avoided, since one of the primary causes is “ignorance of the Scriptures and the power of God”! If you need incentive to study, there it is! But study carefully and selectively, bearing in mind that there are some who “handle deceitfully” (II Cor.4:2) even “the word of God”. These are described in more detail in II Cor.11:12-15. (An easy test: is the “teacher” making a profit from his “teaching?)
Those being “taught” can – and should – simply refuse such enticements, confident that they do not come from the Lord!
Sorting them out is not always easy: but we have been provided a resource of inestimable value, if we have the counsel of an interactive brotherhood, informed by mutual seeking after faithfulness, and empowered by the Spirit sent for the purpose by our risen Lord. Peter emphasized the need for transparent honesty patterned after Jesus himself (I Pet.2:1, 2:22, 3:10), and John (I Jn.4:1-6) provided detailed instructions for the needed discernment. James (5:19,20) chimes in with his admonition to watch out for one another’s welfare.
May we do so faithfully!